Multivitamins: Making healthier children?

I came across a study recently which put the percentage of children under five receiving multivitamins at around 22% 1. That seemed really high to me, even given that age groups typical vegetable refusal and insistence on eating one food all week. It also reminded me of something that scandalised me a while ago - this advertising campaign  for Milo which suggested that it is totally okay that your child had a tiny serve of fruit, almost no protein, no vegetables and a nutella sandwich for dinner since they can get all their nutritional needs from a glass of delicious Milo. Who knew?
I imagine the manufacturers of multivitamins for children would like us to believe the same. That your child is obviously in imminent danger of being nutrient deprived and rather than solving that via better food choices you'd best give them a pill.
 Here's the thing though - if you are living in a developed country, not institutionalised, without an illness like HIV, alcoholism or cancer, not pregnant and not unreasonably diet restricted  you are probably not going to benefit in anyway from multivitamin supplementation. Any reported benefits in people taking multivitamin supplementation is most likely due to the fact that people that take multivitamins tend to also have lower BMIs, eat better and exercise more. This applies to children as well, those who use multivitamins tend to consume more fruit and vegetables 2 and have healthier lifestyles 3 than those who do not.
The general recommendation on multivitamin use is that it is not used and that children receive their nutrients from diet rather than supplements.  This does nothing to address the fact that parents think that they can't give their children sufficient nutrients from their diet clear from the fact that children are more likely to receive supplements when they are reported to be fussy eaters or have poor appetites 3.
Ease your mind. Only three vitamins or minerals are really vital for child development - calcium, vitamin D and iron and it is fairly easy to get the required amount through diet or lifestyle alone.

For example a toddler needs:

  • 500mg of calcium a day so one glass of milk plus one tub of yoghurt or a serve of cheese will get the job done.
  • 7mg of iron a day which can be easily met through a variety of foods, for example one serve of home-made baked beans on toast (kidney beans stewed in tomatoes) will give your toddler 5mg of iron. This website has an excellent list of iron sources.
  • 15mcg of vitamin D: You will struggle to meet this from food alone but 5 minutes of playing outside without sunscreen should do the trick.

Providing your child with the appropriate nutrients is not as hard as the marketing companies want you to believe. Studies have shown no real  difference in mineral quantities in healthy children that were taking supplementation versus those who were not 4 and there has been little evidence to support its use 5. It also does nothing to teach your child about healthy eating which will be best for their health in the long run anyway.
If you want to use them anyway, consider the possibility of  accidental overdose. Iron overdose is a common form of poisoning in young children 6 and poor regulation of vitamin products mean that there is insufficent warning of the overdose possibilities from vitamin A, D, E and K.  For example, just 6ml of this product or two tablets of this product would be exceeding the recommended dosage for a child under 3. While this is unlikely to put them in serious danger (they'd have to consume the whole bottle for that), the effects of vitamin D overdose on child development is unknown. So if you must use them, make sure you treat them like any other medicine and keep them well locked away.


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